AFI members share a collective vision of making financial services more accessible to the world’s unbanked and applying a gender lens to ensure policy and regulation works for women. The network adopted the Denarau Action Plan (DAP) on gender inclusive finance in 2016 and from that day, have continued to make credible commitments that led to tangible actions and provided leadership towards closing the gender gap in financial inclusion globally.
For this reason, the results of the freshly published Global Findex Database 2021 can be celebrated across the AFI network, with the gender gap in access to financial services across developing countries finally reduced from nine to six percent. Nevertheless, there are still many opportunities for policymakers to make additional progress in accelerating women’s financial inclusion.
An evolution in the regulator’s mindset
Progress in women’s financial inclusion reflected in Findex 2021 clearly shows that a growing number of financial regulators today have adopted a gender sensitive outlook in financial inclusion policymaking. Approximately 35 of the policy changes reported by AFI members since 2017 have been in line with the Denarau Action Plan. What is even more promising is that eight of these changes are about the collection of sex-disaggregated data, a key driver of gender inclusive finance, designed to facilitate evidence-driven policy making and regulatory initiatives and help track specific progress in promoting gender inclusive finance.
Using data for strategic financial inclusion policy making is just one of many touchstones that represent a shift in the mindset of financial regulators today. Each of seven AFI working groups, which serve as a key source of policy development in financial inclusion and as “community of practice” on key financial inclusion issues such as consumer empowerment and market conduct, global standards proportionality and inclusive green finance, now has at least one gender focal point. In addition, AFI has recognized eleven gender inclusive finance ambassador institutions who are leading the way in incorporating a gender lens in a spectrum of policy areas.
This shift in the financial regulator’s mindset has also driven the recognition of the benefits found through achieving greater gender diversity in the leadership of AFI member institutions, another important tenet of the DAP. The network currently boasts eleven women leaders at the level of Governor or Head of Institution, and 40 at the level of deputy governor or equivalent. There has been an exciting increase in nominations and elections of women in leadership roles in all AFI regions and as chairs and co-chairs in the Working Groups and Regional Initiatives. Additionally, more than 130 officials from member institutions, both men and women, have attended the Leadership and Diversity Program for Regulators (LDR) implemented in partnership with Women’s World Banking and Oxford University’s Said Business School over the past four years. The objective of this program is to support financial regulators to develop policies that close the gender gap in financial inclusion, and to build women’s leadership pipeline in regulatory organizations.
Digital innovation in gender-sensitive and gender-focused policies
AFI’s DAP has helped open doors to innovation in women’s financial inclusion. We are proud to observe that, according to Findex 2021, members who were able to focus on digital financial services (DFS) have benefited greatly from this investment. Providing mobility, convenience, and safety, DFS has emerged as a dynamic driver in promoting gender inclusive finance (GIF) policies especially recently during the pandemic.
It is encouraging to see that many AFI members have been gender-sensitive in their policy responses to ensure that women and girls are not left behind during the pandemic response and recovery. Existing structural inequalities in developing and emerging economies have been exposed and exacerbated by an increase in the female unemployment, the closure of women-owned and -led businesses, increased school dropout rates among girls, increased unpaid care and domestic work, therefore overcoming these barriers is complex and requires the support of many different stakeholders.
Importantly, as we observe from Findex 2021, a focus on access to financial products and services in not enough, particularly in a world still recovering from the economic impact brought on by the pandemic. The number of people engaging with formal financial services via digital payments, important to invigorate and stabilize local economies, has increased substantially. Therefore, a priority moving forwards should be to focus on enabling usage policies which are gender-sensitive, in order to ensure that women are equally able to enjoy the economic benefits of this trend.
Resilience of the Denarau Action Plan
While Findex 2021 has reported uneven progress among members of the AFI network, we must keep in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all set of initiatives that apply across all countries. Differing cultural norms, coordinating mechanisms, stakeholders, and economic stability means that everyone faces different challenges along their financial inclusion journey. For this reason, the DAP was designed as a principle-based living document that remains relevant to members, regardless of their starting points.
The agility of the DAP demonstrates that regardless of where AFI members are at in their financial inclusion journey, this living document remains applicable to them. While Findex 2021 shows that over 740 million women globally remain financially excluded, AFI members are proactively advancing gender inclusive finance with a goal of creating an enabling environment that accelerates women’s financial inclusion.
As we look ahead to the DAP entering its seventh year, we are excited to see AFI member institutions step up their commitments on women’s financial inclusion and take leading roles in bringing about equity and equality within their jurisdictions. Not leaving woman behind is how we all build a more resilient and sustainable world for present and future generations.
AFI’s gender inclusive finance workstream is financed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and other partners.